FAIRFIELD >> It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday and pouring rain outside. The Notre Dame of Fairfield softball team has moved their practice indoor to the gymnasium.
Last year, a practice on the weekend wouldn’t even have been a thought.
But this year is different.
It also helps that head coach Ron Barber has brought donuts along for the players, too.
“I stopped to get Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins,” Barber said with a laugh. “That’s part of the deal. But this is a nice group of kids and they want to be here.”
What’s changed for a team that finished with just four wins last year and hasn’t had double digit wins since 2011, has a lot to do with Barber. But it also has lot to do with the athletes.
After many lackluster seasons, the Lancers are now winning and winning a lot. The team is 7-3 and as of Tuesday, was just one win away from qualifying for the Class S State Tournament.
It’s been the perfect blend of talent that has been pushed and a team that is finally starting to have fun.
“The talent was kind of bubbled under,” Barber said. “The kids are learning to play the game, step by step.”
Added sophomore Mackenzie Dobbins: “Games are exciting now.”
Barber, who coached at Kolbe Cathedral for five years and had been the assistant at Notre Dame for the last four years, is in his first year at the helm. A teacher in the Stratford school system, his philosophy has been simple for taking over a struggling program. Teach the fundamentals and make sure everyone is enjoying the game.
“Anybody can go out and take batting practice and hit a thousand ground balls,” Barber said. “But it’s knowing what to do after; knowing the plays to make.”
Added junior Becky Stefanatos: “We do a tremendous amount of drills this year. When our practice ended last year, we did maybe two things. Now we lose track of time and we’ve gone late before.”
What makes this team unique is they are winning with a young roster that wants to play. Barber said most of the girls played summer and fall ball, where he got to see and know the players. They had winter conditioning and came into the season experienced.
“I think the team commitment is a lot better,” Stefanatos said. “Everyone wants to be here. The work ethic is really good.”
The majority of the offense has come from Stefanatos, who plays third base, Dobbins, who is in center, and Dayniera Artis behind the plate. All three are underclassman.
Freshman Madison Letizia has been a force on the mound and proven herself as a young pitcher with a lot of potential. Along with a solid infield, it’s been a nice balance.
“This is exciting,” Barber said. “It’s not like we’re going to be one and done. This will be here for a while.”
It’s a resilient group that has experienced the highs and lows of the game. After their worse loss of the season, a 20-0 defeat to Lauralton last Wednesday, that didn’t derail the squad. The very next day they came out and posted a 14-2 win over Bethel.
“That might not have happened last year,” Stefanatos said.
“The confidence in each other and knowing we can make the right plays is there this year,” Dobbins added. “That’s a good feeling.”
In 10 games this season Notre Dame has scored 10 or more runs.
“We were kind of looking at this year as setting it up and seeing what was there,” Barber said. “And the hitting has just taken off.”
Added Stefanatos: “I think our clutch hitting has really been there and we’ve been able to rally.”
It’s also been fun beating teams they lost to last year by a lot of runs.
Now winning, the goals have been changed. First, the team would like to secure a state tournament berth and then go for double digit wins. They’d also like to go far into the postseason.
But on a rainy Saturday, Barber is happy with the present situation in front of him.
“It’s nice to come to a practice on Saturday and the whole team is here,” he said with a smile.